Introducing "Schaefer," in which Eric Schaefer -- a local guy with a big (but discerning) appetite and a sense of humor to match -- takes on the Phoenix food scene.
I recently Googled "Is 40 considered middle-aged?" and was answered in the affirmative. It's worth noting that Google was proud to tell me that this answer took only .26 seconds, indicative of how confident it was in its response. The reality of my middle-aged life is that my middle-aged social life consists almost exclusively of Saturday night dinner plans with other middle-aged people who can identify with my middle-aged trials and tribulations, big and small. My wife and I have Saturday night dinner plans into late September, which is both a blessing and curse.
More often than not, our middle-aged friends ask me to choose the restaurant, because "Eric is into food, right?" Though I appreciate the gesture, I hate the implied responsibility. I can only imagine how [New Times food critic] Laura Hahnefeld must feel. When the ingredient-driven independent restaurant that I choose won't accommodate your imagined food allergy the way Olive Garden does, I don't really want to hear about it. When I'd really rather eat at a chain restaurant that is sneered upon by the foodie elite, I'm guessing that our dining companions will disagree.
And I sure as hell don't want to do the ordering for you. As many of my more OCD food-enthusiast friends can attest, I really don't know that much about food. I just know what I like, and that's really all I care to know.
But this endless stream of Saturday night dinner dates occasionally results in comedic gold. Case in point: the couple who had never seen Mu Shu Chicken.
"Wow," they hesitantly said, "it's like a Chinese fajita" as their hands shook in fear, her face as pale as the white rice on her plate and his brow starting to sweat in horror at the idea of ingesting something so....exotic! What could have been a safer choice than Americanized Chinese food?
Dining with other middle-aged couples also has revealed a few archetypes, the most obvious of which is The Cheap Tipper. (I'll expand upon a few more of these in upcoming entries to this column, but we'll start with this one.) Let it be known that I'm a generous tipper. Whether it's a big meal or a small meal, something has to be tragically wrong for me to tip less than 20 percent. (Why do I have a bad feeling that any servers reading this are now going to do as little as possible, knowing that 20 percent is going to happen anyway?) But I wish I could say the same thing about some of the people we've dined with.
Granted, I have a family member who actually has pulled out a plastic "tip calculator" from his wallet to make sure that he was tipping precisely 15 percent on the pre-tax total. When dining with groups of people, we all usually throw our cards in, divide things equally, and pass the pen around when it comes times to sign. I'd be lying if I didn't admit to looking around to make sure I didn't need to cough up a few dollars more to compensate for someone else's frugality, especially when it's a restaurant where I know the staff or owner. Fortunately, this rarely happens...but it has. And I've intentionally been the last one to walk away from the table, throwing a few extra dollars on it to make up for my cheap bastard friend. In a recent installment of his web series "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," Jerry Seinfeld alludes to that awkward experience of having a meal with a "new" friend and discovering that this person is rude to the server and restaurant staff. My parents were nuts about manners; we couldn't leave the dinner table until we said, "May I please be excused?"
I make a distinct point of being generous with my use of "please" and "thank you" mainly because I really do appreciate the restaurant staff doing a job that -- I'm pretty sure -- would result in financial freefall if it was how I had to support my family. I couldn't do it. I bristle when dining companions say "get me" this or "I want" that, hold their knife like it's a prison shank, or chew with their mouths agape. As my mom would say, "Were you raised in a barn?"
But perhaps the most tragic waste of a Saturday night is a meal with a couple who has absolutely nothing to offer in the conversation. I distinctly recall a dinner, several years ago, with a "new" friend who we didn't know well. My wife knew the wife, but barely. I was hardly enthusiastic about these plans, but my wife got my attention when she told me that the husband was on the President's Secret Service team and scopes out threats when the president travels as part of an advanced team. This, I thought, sounds really exciting! I could talk about this all night . . . discovering national security secrets and hearing harrowing tales of disasters averted. It was potentially riveting.
But I didn't want to walk in, shake his hand, and say, "So I heard you work for the Secret Service." Instead, we made trivial small talk until the time when I could throw in a "so, what do you do for a living?" Clearly there must have been a serious misunderstanding or misrepresentation.
His response, much to my dismay, was, "I'm a systems analyst for a bank."
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Such is the exciting life of a middle-aged man in his middle-aged exploits and Saturday night dinner dates with other middle-aged couples.
Excuse me, but I need to take a nap.